The full name for chop suey is actually Li Hongzhang chop suey – named after the man many believe was responsible for its creation. Li was a powerful figure in the Qing dynasty, in charge of military, economic and foreign affairs.
As the story goes, in 1896 Li made a visit to the United States, where he hosted a Chinese dinner for American officials. When they asked what had been served, Li’s response was ‘chop suey’ – ‘many things put together’. Chop suey soon became a staple on the menus of Chinese restaurants from New York to San Francisco.
It’s easy to understand its popularity: a dish for all seasons, chop suey can be made from whatever ingredients you want, as long as they work together. Generally, it features lighter proteins like chicken, pork, shrimp and fish, enriched by condiments like soy sauce, cooking wine and sugar, which give the dish its balanced sweet and salty flavour. Vegetables like celery, cabbage, onion, bamboo shoots, jicama, straw mushrooms, black mushrooms, snow peas and carrots complement the meat. A dash of sesame oil lends a rich, nutty flavour to the broth, poured over a bowl of steaming rice.
Because Li was from Anhui, chop suey is sometimes considered to be from the eastern Chinese province – but in reality, it’s rarely found in China. You’re better off looking in the US for an authentic plate of the Chinese-American special – like San Francisco’s Sam Wo Restaurant. One of the oldest restaurants in Chinatown, it reopened in October 2015 in a new space featuring a menu of homestyle Chinese-American dishes – including chop suey.
Chan Kei-lum and Diora Fong Chan are the authors of China: The Cookbook (Phaidon Press)